May 24, 2015
By Tom Schad
There were no fireworks from Bryce Harper on Sunday afternoon, no moonshots bouncing off blue seats, no sounding of the horn at Nationals Park, no hairflips on the dugout steps. Instead there were only productive at-bats, gritty at-bats – one after another, four in all.
The towering home runs have come to define Harper, the 22-year-old superstar right fielder for the Washington Nationals, but performances like the one he had Sunday are how he defines himself. He drove in two runs, one on a groundout with a runner on third base. He drew an eight-pitch walk. He threw out a would-be baserunner at second base. And, in his final at-bat of the afternoon, he singled off a tricky left-handed reliever summoned only to get him out.
The Nationals beat the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday, 4-1, to clinch their eighth consecutive series victory. Harper did not homer. Still, his impact was clear.
“It’s almost incredible to watch,” said starter Gio Gonzalez, who held the Phillies to one run over 6 1/3 innings to pick up his fourth win of the season. “It’s just fun to watch him all the time. He’s got something up his sleeve every time. Whether it’s all the way down to his walk-up song, to the way he goes out and just works the count. … Every time he goes up to bat, there’s something [that’s] going to happen.”
At the conclusion of Sunday’s game, Harper led the National League in six offensive categories: runs, home runs, RBI, walks, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Advanced metrics tell a similar story. In terms of wins above replacement, a catch-all stat designed to quantify a player’s value, Harper is worth one full win more than any other position player in the NL. His WAR is 3.7. Miami’s Dee Gordon, at 2.7, ranks second.
Manager Matt Williams is aware of those stats, but he said the key with Harper is his ability to get base hits with two outs and runners in scoring position. He is hitting .313 with a .522 on-base percentage in such situations this season.
“That’s what will make a fantastic season,” Williams said. “He’ll hit balls over the fence, but that won’t be the measure of his success. It will be those little things that he does over the course of a game that allow us to get an extra run, or cut a run down, things of that nature.”
Twice Harper stepped to the plate with two on and a runner in scoring position Sunday. He singled each time. The most impressive at-bat came in the seventh, when Denard Span was at third with two outs.
Philadelphia Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg could have intentionally walked Harper, as he has done five times this season, and faced Ryan Zimmerman with the possibility of a force out at any base. Instead, he called on lefty Jake Diekman, who threw Harper two pitches and watched the third drop into left field for a single.
“Just trying not to do too much,” Harper said of the at-bat. “Just trying to get a ball up. He throws hard, and he’s got a pretty dang good slider, so it’s very tough for a lefty at-bat. But I was just trying to do what I could do to knock one over the third baseman’s head or get something through the hole and get that run in. Getting that extra run is huge.”
In addition to the two-out hits, Harper drew an impressive two-out walk in the third inning. He fell behind 0-2, took three consecutive balls, fouled off two pitches and then strolled to first base for the 39th time this season, eclipsing his total in 100 games last year. He also drove in a run in the fifth inning with a groundout to shortstop.
During his scorching stretch at the plate, which is now entering its fourth week, Harper’s defense at a new position – right field – is often overlooked. In the seventh inning, he reminded the sellout crowd about that aspect of his game, too, collecting a bloop single and firing to second base to throw out Odubel Herrera. The throw was simply one game-changing play by Harper on an afternoon filled with them.
“He’s just becoming the all-around ballplayer,” Gonzalez said. “He’s doing it. You can see it. He’s a superstar, and he’s been a superstar since he was in high school. It’s basically what we’ve been waiting to see, and he’s bringing it.”